LONDON (Reuters) -Old rifts resurfaced in Britain's ruling Conservative Party on Saturday following former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's abrupt resignation from parliament, while the opposition Labour Party sensed opportunity ahead of a general election next year.
Johnson quit late on Friday in protest against an investigation by lawmakers into his conduct as prime minister during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdown-breaking parties were held in Downing Street.
In his resignation statement, Johnson railed against the inquiry that examined whether he misled the House of Commons about the gatherings, saying it had not found "a shred of evidence" against him. He also took aim at current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Sunak's Conservatives, trailing badly in opinion polls, must now fight three by-elections in constituencies vacated on Friday by Johnson and his ally Nadine Dorries, and on Saturday by Nigel Adams, a former minister in the Johnson government.
Johnson's loyalists, some of whom received political honours from him hours before his resignation, praised his record in social media posts. The rest were silent.
"Well done Rishi for starting this nonsense!!" lawmaker Andrea Jenkyns wrote in a Conservative Party WhatsApp group, according to a screenshot shared by a Sky News reporter.
Jenkyns received the honorary title of Dame in Johnson's resignation honours list published on Friday which critics derided as an exercise in cronyism.
His premiership was cut short last year in part by anger in his own party and across Britain over COVID rule-breaking lockdown parties in his Downing Street office and residence.
Henry Hill, deputy editor of the Conservative Home website, said Johnson's exit meant he was no longer a "prince-over-water" in parliament who threatened Sunak's grip on the party.
"It will mean that any trouble made by his allies is much less potent," Hill told BBC radio.
A YouGov poll published on Saturday showed 65% of Britons thought Johnson knowingly misled parliament, compared with 17% who did not.
LABOUR SMELLS BLOOD
The opposition Labour Party, which has a roughly 16-point lead over Sunak's Conservatives in opinion polls, said it relished the prospect of fighting the by-elections in Conservative-held constituencies.
"We will be fighting to win in those constituencies," Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner told the BBC on Saturday.
"They've created a by-election because both of them (Johnson and Dorries) have thrown their toys out of the pram."
Johnson's decision to resign may be the end of his 22-year political career, where he rose from parliament to become mayor of London and then built a profile that tipped the balance of the 2016 European Union referendum in favour of Brexit, before becoming prime minister in 2019.
He did leave a possible door open to return, saying at the end of his resignation statement that it was "very sad to be leaving parliament - at least for now".
(Reporting by Andy Bruce; Editing by Mike Harrison, Frances Kerry and Clelia Oziel)